Eric Hobsbawm’s Jewish Gift
How the British Marxist and anti-Zionist, who died last week, influenced the writing of Jewish history
In January 1999, the anthropologist Mary Douglas and I were walking across Hampstead Heath to a workshop held at the home of Gerald Mars, now honorary professor of anthropology at University College, London, who lived on Nassington Road. The historian Eric Hobsbawm also lived on Nassington Road, just across the street from where we were going, and Mary suggested that we ring his bell and stop to say hello.
What would I say? I had read some of his work, found it enormously enlightening for my efforts as a historian, and applied it to the study of Judaism in antiquity. But we were also so different: My way of being Jewish was far from Hobsbawm’s, and I had chosen to live in Israel—a place Hobsbawm denounced in the strongest terms. I feared the conversation would be unpleasant, so I declined to meet him.
Now Hobsbawm is gone, called to the Academy on High, and I can no longer ring his bell. But I want to reflect on the contributions of this unusual scholar to the study of Judaism—a contribution that has, perhaps because of his anti-Zionism, not always been adequately acknowledged.
Hobsbawm was born in Alexandria in 1917, and his life included stops at Vienna and Berlin before he settled in Britain. His principal academic position throughout his life was at Birbeck, University of London. He was ultimately acknowledged, even by his political enemies (of whom there were not a few) as one of the outstanding historians of the 20th century.
But the place to begin understanding him is that part of his autobiography, Interesting Times, which remains for me the most engrossing and utterly fascinating account of what it meant to be a Communist in Britain in the 1930s. “The Party (we always thought of it in capital letters) had the first, or more precisely the only real claims on our lives. Its demands had absolute priority,” Hobsbawm wrote. “We accepted its discipline and hierarchy. We accepted the absolute obligation to follow ‘the line’ it proposed to us, even when we disagreed with it, although we made heroic efforts to convince ourselves of its intellectual and political ‘correctness’ in order to ‘defend it’ as we were expected to.” And it controlled personal lives; “to have a serious relationship with someone who was not in the Party or prepared to join (or rejoin it) was unthinkable.”
Hobsbawm indicated three aspects that made communism so attractive. First, Marxism, as he wrote: “which demonstrated with the methods of science the certainty of our victory.” Second, internationalism: “ours was a movement for all humanity,” further noting with satisfaction that those “young Jews who began as Zionists became communists because, obvious as the sufferings of the Jews were, they were only part of universal oppression.” And third, hardness: quoting Brecht, Hobsbawm explained that “we who wanted to prepare the ground for kindness could not be kind ourselves.” Put another way, communism encouraged the pride of meeting the constant challenge: “Test me some more, as a Bolshevik I have no breaking point.”
These loyalties had a significant impact on Hobsbawm’s loyalties as a Jew. His opposition to Zionism in the context of his discussions of nationalism is well known, but even more important, for Hobsbawm, the most pertinent reason for believing that the tribe into which he was born was a “chosen” or special people was the “disproportionate and remarkable contribution to humanity in the wider world, mainly in the two centuries or so since the Jews were allowed to leave the ghettos and chose to do so.”
This choice had important consequences for his work as a historian: He saw the greatest danger to good history in anachronism and provincialism. In his essay “Identity History Is Not Enough,” he wrote that the major danger to good history lies in “the temptation to isolate the history of one part of humanity—the historian’s own, by birth or choice—from its wider context. … Historians, however microcosmic, must be for universalism … because it is the necessary condition for understanding the history of humanity, including that of any special section of humanity. For all human collectives are and have been part of a larger and more complex world. A history which is designed only for Jews (or African-Americans, or Greeks, or women, or proletarians, or homosexuals) cannot be good history, though it may be comforting history to those who practice it.”
Hobsbawm would therefore have objected strenuously to efforts to write the history of the Jews in any time and place based only on “our sources”—and would have had little sympathy for Jewish history written as a series of “talking heads,” discussing philosophy, theology, or halakhah, without a firm foundation in the analysis of the social circumstances that helped form the context for these results in their time and place. He would have objected strongly to concentration on elites and intellectuals without reference to the lives of “ordinary” Jews. He wanted to write history “from the bottom up.”
Yet, almost despite himself, despite defining himself as a “non-Jewish Jew,” Hobsbawm had an enormous influence on the writing of Jewish history. Perhaps his most important distinct contribution was the collection of essays he edited on The Invention of Tradition, published in 1992. Hobsbawm there introduced the term “invented tradition,” which he defined as a kind of false consciousness, an invented connection to the past that is largely factitious. One example was the annual Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols celebrated on Christmas Eve in the Chapel of Kings College, Cambridge, where Hobsbawm was a student. It was supposedly ancient, going back (like all else at Cambridge) to the 13th century, but had in fact been invented only a few years before Hobsbawm came to college.
Concerning Judaism, a religion in which “tradition” played such an important part, scholars were then struggling to understand the ways in which this notion worked and how it helped shape the results. Indicative of the importance of this issue (and of the difficulties it raised) are Gershom Scholem’s comments in his essay “Revelation and Tradition as Religious Categories in Judaism” from The Messianic Idea in Judaism. Scholem began by retelling the famous account of the visit by Moses to the Academy of Rabbi Akiba, at which Moses was quite distressed because he did not understand a word being said but was ultimately comforted when Rabbi Akiba explained that he knew a certain matter because it was a teaching given to Moses at Sinai. For Scholem, this story contained the heart of the paradox he intended to explore. He noted that:
In considering the problem of tradition we must distinguish between two questions. The first is historical: How did a tradition endowed with religious dignity come to be formed? The other question is: How was this tradition understood once it had been accepted as a religious phenomenon? For the faithful promptly discard the historical question once they have accepted a tradition … yet for the historian the historical question remains fundamental: In order to understand the meaning of what the faithful simply accept, the historian is not bound to accept the fictions that veil more than they reveal concerning the origins of the accepted faith.
For Scholem, however, the veils of fiction that surrounded a tradition arose at a later stage of the process of its acceptance. There was some genuine historical origin, which it was the historian’s task to discover. Hobsbawm offered his notion of invented tradition as a radical critique of conventional faith, intended to break the intellectual logjam and achieve a much deeper understanding of the processes by which some traditions were formed.
Invented traditions, according to Hobsbawm, came into being at times of great and rapid change. They were ways of re-establishing a connection with the past, when that connection had been broken by circumstances. As such, they had little or no claim to a “genuine” link to the remote past, as they asserted. Instead, they were heavily loaded symbolic actions that promoted a specific way of bridging over the chasm between past and present, wholly meaningful in the present. The essays in the volume on The Invention of Tradition covered any number of examples of such invented traditions, none of them Jewish, but this notion would have helped resolve Scholem’s paradox: Claims of teachings given to Moses at Sinai could now be understood as invented traditions that would grant a measure of legitimacy to rabbinic ideas, which even the rabbis who told the story recognized would not have been acknowledged or understood by the historical Moses.
It is therefore not surprising that this idea has been taken up with enthusiasm by some Jewish historians. Michael Silber of the Hebrew University has proposed understanding ultra-Orthodoxy as an invented tradition. However, perhaps on account of Hobsbawm’s anti-Zionism, his article contains no reference to Hobsbawm, even though Hobsbawm’s notion of invented tradition is fundamental to Silber’s argument. Aaron W. Hughes of the University of Buffalo was more generous, acknowledging Hobsbawm as his source of inspiration when discussing religious tolerance in Muslim Spain, as analyzed by modern historians, as an invented tradition. The understanding of da’at Torah in the world of orthodoxy from the early 20th century until our own time as “rabbinic infallibility,” as proposed by Gershon Bacon of Bar-Ilan University and others, also fits Hobsbawm’s category of invented tradition.
Hobsbawm was widely criticized for his lifelong adherence to communism, despite all the repression and mass death it brought, and for the effect it may have had on his work as a historian. My perspective is different. If I have any criticism of Hobsbawm’s notion of invented tradition it concerns his insistence that, while invented traditions were possible at any time and place, they were especially prominent in the modern world. I disagree and have discussed this point at length in an article co-authored with Marina Rustow, now of Johns Hopkins University, in which we noted many examples of invented traditions from the pre-modern Jewish past. As one instance, I suggested there that the notion of invented tradition helps explain texts such as mSheq 6:1, which described the practice of the families of R. Gamaliel and R. Hananiah, who performed one more prostration than others in the Temple “since they had a tradition [masoret] from their ancestors that the ark was buried” in a particular place. The vessels of the First Temple were now lost and hidden, but their eventual discovery also played a significant role in some ancient Jewish millennial scenarios. This is already the case in 2 Macc 2:7–8, in which Jeremiah supposedly reprimanded the Jews of his time who wanted to mark the way to the place where he had hidden the vessels, because “the place shall remain unknown, he said, until God finally gathers his people together and shows mercy to them.” Josephus, similarly, told the story of a Samaritan who promised to find the hidden vessels “where Moses had deposited them.” Pontius Pilate ordered Roman troops to attack this Samaritan and many of his followers, and according to Josephus they were killed. Pilate understood that this was not an innocent archeological excavation, but an action fraught with millennial meaning and a challenge to Roman rule. It was a claim about the past with important political implications for the present. The same conclusion holds true for the extra prostration performed at the Temple by the families of R. Gamaliel and R. Hananiah.
Furthermore, Rustow and I argued, the distinction between invented traditions and genuine ones may not be the most useful way to analyze traditions. At least sometimes, the new traditions advanced in response to changing circumstances have a genuine basis in older sources, but these are rescued from relative oblivion or reinterpreted to create the new “modern” tradition (Rustow and I called these “strong” traditions). Therefore, rather than focus on whether a tradition is invented or genuine, it is better to concentrate on the change that has taken place and the ways in which strong traditions respond to that change.
Until the end, Hobsbawm defined himself as a Communist, and not as a Jew. But by his own terms, his disproportionate and remarkable contributions to understanding the human past were expressions of his own Jewishness, and—regardless of his insistence that he was a “non-Jewish Jew”—should find their rightful place in our histories.
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